The Opportunity Agenda and the politics of the centre ground

You could forgive the Conservative Government if it decided to sit back and enjoy the seemingly unchallenged position it has at the centre of British politics.  With an Opposition that seems intent on keeping the news agenda focussed on its own internal divisions, despite the fact that the country is facing big issues such as floods across swathes of northern England and the Prime Minister’s embarking on a reassessment of the UK’s relationship with Europe. Rather than using a divided opposition as a reason to ease back into its comfort zone the Prime Minister has underlined his commitment to secure the centre ground of politics and deliver social change in his remaining time in Government.    So, what does the centre ground look like to David Cameron’s Conservative Government and what will David Cameron want his legacy as Prime Minister to be when surrenders the keys to Number 10?

On Monday David Cameron gave his Life Chances speech in which he set out his agenda for social reform. The Life Chances Strategy will touch on many aspects of Government policy, but the major focus was on housing.  The biggest announcement was pre-briefed over the weekend on housing and estate regeneration.  He also underlined his support for the  Right to Buy deal last autumn, which extends the policy to those in housing association homes as well as council owned homes, ISAs for people saving for a deposit and Government backed equity loans for buyers of new homes, all aimed at increasing the level of home-ownership as well stimulating demand for the building of new houses. The speech made it clear that home-ownership is central to David Cameron’s focus on expanding opportunity and will be at the heart of the Government’s policy. .

Estate regeneration is aimed at creating better living environments and life chances for those living there, it is also aimed at improving supply through increased density.  While regeneration will be welcomed by many, £140m support for regenerating 100 estates is by no means a significant amount of money and this will raise questions about how these plans will be funded.

Where regeneration has happened in the past work has been funded by the construction and sale of market housing.  This has raised question marks over if regeneration will lead to a reduction of  the social rented units on some of the estates and what this means for the future of social rented homes. Jermy Corbyn has attacked the Prime Minister’s plan as social cleansing and that along with the extension of right to buy this could be the end of social housing as we know it.

Monday’s speech gave a much stronger indication of what society should look like in today’s Conservative Britain and the social reform that is needed. Cameron reiterated his support for the family (which has been a consistent theme throughout his term in office), Government funding for childcare provision and announced more funding for families as well as other measures to support marriage as a lifestyle choice. The Prime Minister was clear that the family unit is the most effective deliverer of welfare for all.

Other policy areas identified in the speech include education. Education was a priority area for reform in the last Parliament and in his second term as Prime Minister David Cameron wants to keep this going apace.  Notably absent was any reference to the NHS although we saw a renewed emphasis on the importance of mental health care to help keep people in work and alleviate the burden on other public services.

A lot of the Government’s reforms that were underway in the last Parliament – NHS, Welfare and Justice – were seen through the prism of cost-cutting measures designed to balance the budget and improve the economy. The Government will now try and entrench its position in the centre ground and reshape it with a proactive vision of what society should look like.

The Prime Minister is in an unprecedented strong possition,   with an Opposition reeling in its own ideological struggles, a Conservative majority and a relatively unified party.   There is plenty of issues that the Government can trip up on, such as the challenge of the EU referendum, but 2016 looks set to be the year that the Government sets out a positive case for what it wants to get right.

Whilst the economy will continue to be central to Tory policy and the Government will to seek to frame the Opposition as being incompetent  and a threat to the security of the nation and ordinary families it is clear that despite his pre-announced departure and his reputation for ‘chillaxing’ the Prime Minister has no intention to take it easy in his remaining period in office.  The Prime Minister will want to secure his legacy as well as own and shape the politics of the centre ground in the run-up to GE2020 – regardless of who leads the Conservatives by then.